Fact Check

Willie Sutton - 'That's Where the Money Is'

Did Willie Sutton give his reason for robbing banks as 'That's where the money is'?

Published Sept. 10, 2008


Claim:   Willie Sutton gave his reason for robbing banks as: "That's where the money is."


Origins:   Bank robber Willie Sutton (1901-1980) did rather well at his profession: Over the course of his career, he made off with an estimated $2 million in ill-gotten gains. He was a daring and resourceful robber who used disguises and trickery to achieve his ends, including dressing as a policeman, window washer, maintenance man, bank guard,

Willie Sutton

mover, Western Union messenger, and striped-pants diplomat.

Yet for all his success, Sutton wasn't a typical thug. He was instead described by those he encountered as polite and even a gentleman. (One victim said witnessing one of his robberies was like being at the movies, except the usher had a gun.)

In 1950, Willie Sutton earned himself a place on the FBI's brand-new Ten Most Wanted list, becoming the 11th man listed on that compilation. (He replaced William Raymond Nesbit, #3 on the original list, after Nesbit was apprehended.) Sutton was captured numerous times, and he broke out of prison numerous times. Towards the end of his days he was incarcerated in Attica State Prison to serve a life sentence plus 135 years (the extra 135 years had been added for his various escapes), but he was paroled in 1969.

He lived for eleven more years after his parole, and during that span he traded on his notoriety by appearing in a television commercial for Connecticut's New Britain Bank & Trust Co. to tout that institution's new MasterCharge credit cards, the first in the state to carry the holder's identifying photograph. "They call it the Face Card," said Sutton, peering out from the screen and holding a card with his photo on it. "Now when I say I'm Willie Sutton, people believe me." An announcer wound up the commercial with the pronouncement: "Tell them Willie Sutton sent


Sutton co-authored two books during his lifetime: I, Willie Sutton (1953) and Where the Money Was (1976), the latter a play on the catchphrase he'd never uttered.

Which brings us to the meat of the matter. Sutton is famous for two things: His fascinating career as an illegal withdrawals specialist (bank robber, that is) and for a pithy rejoinder supposedly uttered in response to an interviewer's query about why he robbed banks. While lore would have it that the bank robber replied "Because that's where the money is" to that common question, Sutton denied ever having said it. "The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy," wrote Sutton in his autobiography. "I can't even remember where I first read it. It just seemed to appear one day, and then it was everywhere."

The earliest print sighting of the coined phrase dates to 15 March 1952, when it appeared in Redlands Daily Facts, a Southern California newspaper. Today it is so commonplace that a handful of social scientists have dubbed the process of considering the obvious first as "Sutton's Law."

As to what actually motivated Sutton to hold up banks, as he said in Where the Money Was: "Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all."

Barbara "sutton placed" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    FBI on Willie Sutton Willie Sutton   (FBI)

Last updated:   14 November 2008


    Keyes, Ralph.   The Quote Verifier.

    New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.   ISBN 0-312-34004-4   (p. 143).

    Krebs, Albin.   "Willie Sutton Is Dead at 79."

    The New York Times.   19 November 1980.

    Shapiro, Fred R.   The Yale Book of Quotations.

    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.   ISBN 0-300-10798-6   (p. 739).

    Show, John.   "Life Savings."

    Time.   23 August 1976.

    Time.   "Willie Sutton, Bankers' Friend."

    26 October 1970.

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